Saturday, April 26, 2014


(SPOILER WARNING: Some spoilers for recent episodes of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (C'mon though, as if you didn't know HYDRA were the bad guys...))

I will be the first to admit that the first season of Agents of SHIELD got off to a weak start; I didn't find myself empathizing too much with any of the characters, there were only the most tenuous connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it all felt a little too mundane or familiar; a retreaded X-Files having difficulty reaching its potential.

Given executive producer and MCU guru Joss Whedon's love of a good slow boil, I was more than willing to give AoS time to find its footing.  If nothing else, it was family friendly adventure tv I could enjoy with the girls, but I hoped to see something a bit more awesome before too long.

The show has taken tremendous strides of late, and our enjoyment has increased considerably, but I wonder if, looking back, we won't be even more impressed with the first half, knowing that the producers and writers were forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.

In The Winter Soldier, it is revealed that the villainous organization from the first Captain America movie, HYDRA, had survived WWII and infiltrated SHIELD.  Prior to this playing out on the big screen, the SHIELD showrunners were forbidden from even using the word HYDRA, making it difficult to hint at the size of the organization they were unwittingly pitting themselves against, or to foreshadow the scale of the coming conflict.  "No mentioning the 'H' word," was the watchword. What a restriction!

Immediately after the film's opening weekend, the ropes were cut, and the results of this infiltration played out on TV in AoS, with a huge immediate effect and repercussions that will follow through to the season finale, three episodes from now.  If you haven't been watching, now is your chance!  HYDRA is out in the open!  SHIELD has been almost completely dismantled!  No one knows who to trust!  Cyborg assassin Deathlok is on the loose!  And everyone is wondering if they will have to change the name of the show to "Agents of Nothing"!

I'm having a wonderful time, the same time, I'm uneasy and a bit concerned.

Here's the crux of it for me: in the episode before last, a HYDRA footsoldier, dressed in black tactical gear and indistinguishable from most of the SHIELD agents we've seen, raises both arms in the air to salute the highest ranking field leader we've seen, and shouts, "Hail Hydra!"

In response, the leader looks both annoyed and embarrassed, and says, "All right, all right. Put your arms down, Kaminski. You look like a West Texas cheerleader at a pep rally."
No, no, no, please don't do that; don't diminish the salute that looked so intimidating in Captain America: The First Avenger.  Don't try to make HYDRA cool, or cynical.  Don't try to make them conventional.  And most importantly, don't try to make them rational.

What makes HYDRA effective in the comics is the fact that they are fanatical.  They are terrifying in their commitment to their goals, whether that goal is world domination or human extinction. HYDRA is not a gang, they are not a paramilitary; in effect, they are a cult.  A death cult, actually.

Don't get me wrong: I get the need to update things a bit.  In the comics, HYDRA never went away, becoming the major foil of the Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD comics of the 1960s.  In the MCU, they have been underground for, what, seven decades?  I didn't expect all the traitorous turncoats (ptooey!) concealed within SHIELD to literally rip off their jackets to reveal HYDRA issue green long johns beneath, before pulling on their traditional half-face hood and yellow gloves.

At least, not right away.

What I did expect though, was some sort of acknowledgment or at least reference of HYDRA's heritage, some vintage esprit de corps, certainly no dissing the salute, and yeah, more "Hail Hydra!"

And not just, "Hail Hydra!" either, but "HAIL HYDRA!!"

Keep the SWAT looking SHIELD kit they've nicked, but paint it green, dark green if you want, I don't care.  Give them green gas masks or ballistic hoods for their combat gear to emulate the look from 40+ years of comics.

Tell us the secret history of HYDRA; some of it is told here, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wikia.  Some insights as to the political status of HYDRA can be found at The Legal Geeks website (where the image above came from!), but it is vitally important we find out not only how they survived the end of WWII, but how they passed the torch to young guys like Kaminski.  How can such a clandestine group possibly recruit so many people? Is it a family thing, with the secret passing from father to son to grandson? What's in it for the HYDRA footsoldier? Money, power, a licence to kill?  It can't be that simple, or it would prove too easy to re-align their loyalties, turn a HYDRA agent into a mole, and so on, right?

What prompts the degree of dedication that would make someone lethally turn on their former comrades simply by hearing the words, "Hail Hydra"?  We aren't talking about someone getting greedy and capping their fellow security guards in order to run off with a bank shipment, these are people crossing the line into outlaw territory in an old-fashioned way that makes real world examples like the 'American Taliban' pale in comparison.

Cynicism just isn't going to cut it as a HYDRA ethos, I'm afraid.  In The Winter Soldier, we hear that HYDRA's goal is control of humanity, and to accomplish that they need a means of convincing people to give up their freedom willingly, which turns out to be terrorism.

Fair enough, I suppose, but what is the prize awaiting faithful HYDRA goons?  A cultist wouldn't care, and a cheerleader wouldn't ask, which is why the dismissal of the salute was so disheartening to me.  I love Joss Whedon and what he has done with his orchestration of the MCU, but I hope and pray he doesn't go too far in reflecting the real world's cynicism and pragmatism in it, at least as far as HYDRA is concerned.  They can't be the villains from Die Hard; they need to be crazy, terrifying, more unpredictable and way, way more dangerous.

Still, given the intense levels of secrecy involved, and the size of the organization, maybe this boring and disaffected aspect isn't the true face of HYDRA after all.  I mean, in the post-credits scene of The Winter Soldier, we meet a monocled fellow that most of us assume to be the infamous Baron Von Strucker, the Supreme HYDRA.  He speaks of sacrificing other bases and operations in order to keep the superhero types off their backs while they bring their next plan to fruition with 'The Twins', who we will learn more about in next spring's Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron.

Maybe Strucker or the Supreme Hydra or whoever will take exception to their field leader's dispassion; perhaps he'll end up dealt with in a sufficiently ruthless fashion pour encourager les autres, as they used to say.  What if they are building back up the fanaticism I crave in my villainous organizations seeking global domination?  Could it be their plan to go from a whisper to a scream?

Look, I'm really happy to have HYDRA back in any capacity, honest I am.  But if the people behind Agents of SHIELD and the rest of the MCU really want me on board, at some point I`m afraid I will need to see some sort of assault on a HYDRA base, full of guys dressed like this:

Saying stuff like this:


Is that really too much to ask for?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Appendices

Happy Easter!

I wasn't able to add some of the items I wanted to to yesterday's post, so I figured I would footnote a couple of the elements discussed in this post instead.  First and foremost, Fenya's rendition of 'Hurt':

Failing all else, here is a link to the mp3 file itself so you can download and play it at your leisure!

Fenya sings 'Hurt'

Next, the full text of The Reproaches that we used on Good Friday:

James: We say those words of hope and yet it is hard not to feel the hopelessness
that Jesus must have felt that day. And so we hear words that have been offered on
this day for hundreds of years.
Stephen: The Lord says:
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you from slavery to freedom, but you led your Saviour to the cross.
I brought you out of Egypt, but you handed me over to the high priests. 
All: Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison. 
Stephen: My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud, but you led me to Pilate's court.
I bore you up with manna in the desert, but you struck me down and scourged me. 
All: Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison. 
Stephen: My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I gave you a royal sceptre, but you gave me a crown of thorns.
I raised you to the height of majesty, but you have raised me high on a cross. 
All: Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison. 
Stephen: My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I gave you saving water from the rock, but you gave me gall and vinegar to drink.
For you I struck down the kings of Canaan, but you pierced your Saviour with a lance. 
All: Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison. 
Stephen: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you. 
All: By your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
(The response kyrie eleison is Greek, and means "Lord have mercy.")

The Reproaches are also known as The Improperia, and date back to the 9th century. It's unfortunate that humanity's insurmountable ability to hear a lesson meant for them and redirect it away from themselves ("Yeah, you guys!") means that in the past these verses have been co-opted by anti-Semites in an attempt to legitimize their racism.  The betrayal of Jesus was not done by Jews, Greeks, Romans, or Pharisees, but by humans.  I heard an interview with musician and former gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman (he of Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys) who said, "the crowd always asks for Barrabas";  the important thing to remember is our capacity to be that crowd, whoever we may be.

But that was Friday, and now that tomb is empty!

About twenty of us attended last night's firelight Easter Service, where we heard some scriptures, watched a video about the Big Bang (gotta love a church that embraces science!), and listened to Glen sing "On the Turning Away" by Pink Floyd.  I've always liked this song, which has a folkier feel than a lot of Floyd, but never considered how apt a song it is for Easter:

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say which we won't understand
"Don't accept that what's happening
Is just a case of others' suffering
Or you'll find that you're joining in
The turning away"

It's a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting its shroud over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we're all alone
In the dream of the proud

On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite in a silent accord
Using words you will find are strange
Mesmerised as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away from the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It's not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there'll be
No more turning away?

Whether your Easter is sacred or secular, I hope that you can spare a moment to consider the gap between where our world is, and where it might be, and that it is a happy occasion regardless!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reproach, Reflection, and Revelation

I am writing this inside a dimly lit church sanctuary at 4 am as Fenya and I take our turn at the Easter Vigil. The idea is to ensure that the sanctuary is never empty, from the end of yesterday's Good Friday service until tonight's firelight ceremony, the first service of Easter. Besides the inconsistent percussion of my fingers on the iPad keyboard, the only other sounds are soft organ music from behind me, and Fenya's page turning beside me.

There are a number of spiritual books in the narthex, and the indoor labyrinth is set up so it can be walked. In the past, there has been art to reflect upon and stations with various worship practices outlined, but those keeping vigil are free to make whatever observances they wish. Writing has always been the most introspective thing I do, and so I have brought my tablet and a tv tray because of something I experienced at yesterday's Good Friday service.

Our household got to participate in two different ways this year: I did some readings as part of the story of the crucifixion of Christ, and Fenya sang. In wanting to change things up, and to help people look at The Passion in a different way, Rev. James had asked her about singing something secular, perhaps popular, as opposed to specifically sacred. "What's something people will recognize as mournful but not necessarily associated with Easter? Glen will be singing Pink Floyd's 'On the Turning Away' this weekend, is there anything like that you could work with?"

Fenya was intrigued at the chance to move outside her normal repertoire of chamber and choral music, and when she told me the plan, I racked my brain for something appropriate that she might be familiar with. Most of the saddest songs I can think of are rooted in the blues, but that really didn't fit her style. "The only thing I can think of that is a real lamentation is that Johnny Cash cover of 'Hurt', but I don't know how much of a fit that will be with Good Friday..." I confessed.

She became intrigued by the idea though, and sang it to James at her next opportunity, and he agreed that there was something there. I was a little skeptical until I got the order of service and saw that Fenya was singing right after I read Matthew 27:1-5 which includes this:

3 Then when Judas, the one who had betrayed him, saw that he had been condemned, he regretted what he had done and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and elders,
4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood!” But they said, “What is that to us? You see to it!”
5 And throwing the silver coins into the temple he departed. And he went away and hanged himself.

Moving straight from that last image to "I hurt myself today..." made for a petty effective segue. Now, obviously Trent Reznor was unlikely to have been thinking directly of Jesus and Judas when he wrote Hurt; I think of it primarily as it an insightful and personal song about someone recognizing their behaviour as selfish and self destructive but helpless to stop it or change. Having just read the passage where he hangs himself in shame, it is easy to imagine Judas singing
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here
What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way

I've always found Hurt to be a tremendously moving song, especially Johnny Cash's version, but hearing my daughter sing something so painful, especially in this context, was almost too much to bear. Likewise, a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Judas has always resonated with me, probably due to the undue influence Jesus Christ Superstar had on the formation of my personal theology, but imagining him admitting his wrong to Jesus and admitting He is his sweetest friend struck me as incredibly powerful, and the sensation of sudden humidity around the eyes was visible in several other faces around the church.

After the final reading, but before James' sermon, I got to read aloud a thousand-year-old prayer called The Reproaches. It's a fascinating responsive reading from medieval times which portrays God as reminding the listener all He has done for his people, and the ingratitude with which He has been repaid.
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I gave you saving water from the rock, but you gave me gall and vinegar to drink.
For you I struck down the kings of Canaan, but you pierced your Saviour with a lance.
As I went up to read The Reproaches, I found myself responding very emotionally, which struck me as curious. It can sometimes be too easy to read Scriptural text and related writings dispassionately; the archaic language, the unfamiliar cadences and so on, and so I always try to take care that my voice is inflected and attempt to bring some sense of passion or drama to whatever I am presenting. Looking at these ancient accusations though, I felt my throat closing up, and struggled to maintain my composure. Where was this coming from?

I was midway through reading when I came to the sudden realization that, of all the wrongs we do to each other, there is none worse than betrayal, at least as far as I am concerned.

My capacity for understanding and empathy is far, far greater for someone who beats and robs another, than for someone who embezzled money from a charity, for instance. Physical injury and psychological trauma is far less affecting to me than this unsavoury idea of betraying the confidence of those who trust you. In entertainment, one of the fastest ways for a character to lose my respect is through marital infidelity. Even in games, I shy away from those which require deal-breaking in order to win, like Diplomacy. In Warhamer 40,000, a game whose faction appeal is far more dependent on visuals than background, there are no real 'good guys', but I will never play a Chaos Marine army, because they aren't just rebels, they are traitors.

I've been conscious of my antipathy towards betrayal for some time now, and the commitment to honesty and truth that comes with it reflects itself in so many other ways, like the fact that the only spankable offence when the girls were pre-schoolers was lying. Little things too, like how much I enjoy the mythical story of Tyr, who sacrificed his own hand to the mouth of a wolf in order to prove his commitment to an oath.

But where did it start? Racing through my memories while standing at the lectern, I saw my lowest times when I had let someone down, and other instances where I had felt betrayed, ranging from fickle childhood affiliations in elementary school, through to the revelation that someone I had worked with on a student association had duped myself and others in order to steal funds. An incident from childhood involving my father daring me to test the safety feature of a new garage door while laying under it took a place of prominence as well, and might actually be a big part of the root of it.

Suddenly I was struck by the sheer volume of treachery in the Easter story; not only the betrayal of Judas, but the denial of Peter, and the fickle crowd asking for Barrabas instead. Suddenly I had a clearer understanding of why the story of Christ's final days on Earth have such an impact on me.

The Easter story is filled with treachery, and reminds us and how often we have let others down, by not being more compassionate, or rushing to judge others, or being selfish. But it is ultimately a story of grace and forgiveness, and a reminder that it is never too late to change.

In all these years, I had never understood just how personal a story The Passion really is.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reconciling Magic

Lately I've begun to reconsider my stance on whether or not I believe in magic.

I am a person of faith, and while that comes with a willingness to believe in the mysterious, the counter-intuitive and even the miraculous, I've never been comfortable with believing in the supernatural. My mantra has always been, "I believe in God, but I don't believe in magic."
There was a time when I believed in it; I think this is true for most of us. As children, we are taught that 'please' and 'thank-you' are 'magic words', and many of us had little difficulty believing that one man could visit all the households on Earth in one night, propelled only by flying reindeer. I remember being mystified as my father pulled a coin out of my ear, but he would eventually relent and show me the truth, explaining how 'the hand is quicker than the eye'. So when I speak about magic, I am not talking about illusion or misdirection, or the revelation when an undiscovered truth is revealed, but what the dictionary describes as "apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces"; a power undetectable by scientific instrumentation.

In this context, for me at least, the roots of magic lie in symbolism, the meaning we imbue objects and events with. Birthdays are a perfect example; on the anniversary of my birth, the Earth will still complete one rotation on its axis, and complete 1/365th of its navigation around the run, and very little will distinguish it from the day that precedes it or the one which follows it. But because it has a significance in our culture, if I choose to share with a stranger that it happens to be my birthday, it would not be unusual for them to wish me a happy one.

Faith communities are well aware of the power of symbolism; in communion, you have some who see this sacrament as an opportunity to reenact the last supper, while those who believe in transubstantiation feel that these elements of bread and wine are becoming, in a very real way, the body and blood of Jesus. Let's not overstate this; these believers also understand that there is no way to detect the change with our human senses, and are left with a paradox to sort out, where the elements have changed substantively, even though they haven't.

Baptism gives an even better example of this blurring between symbolism and magic. In many Christian faith communities, this symbolic cleansing prepares someone for entering that community, and committing to their articles of faith, whether they are a baby, child or adult. What's unusual though, is the number of people who might hesitate to call themselves 'believers', may not be looking to connect with that particular community or doctrine, but who nonetheless bring their newborns to be baptised

Is it out of respect for tradition? Is it out of fear? Do they long for that sense of community? Do they feel a need for a connection to something larger than themselves, perhaps even infinite? It is difficult to say, and I daresay many of them would have a hard time articulating their motivation without a considerable amount of reflection.

My most recent encounter with this kind of mysterious power didn't come at a church, but at the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission event here in Edmonton.

In case you hadn't heard of it, the TRC was a national event that gave survivors of the Indian Residential School system the opportunity to talk about their experiences and have them recorded by the commission. These are harrowing tales of indigenous children being taken away from their parents, against their will, at a very young age, transported great distances to remote boarding schools where they were divorced from their culture, and harshly punished if they attempted to speak their own language.

When we speak about the Indian Residential Schools, it is important to be clear that we are not talking about an institution with noble goals, where a lack of oversight allowed occasional abuses to take place; we are talking about a systematic attempt at cultural genocide perpetrated by the Canadian government and aided and abetted by many churches, including the United Church of Canada, of which I am a member.

It is also important that we not delude ourselves into thinking that the Indian Residential Schools are a part of our distant past; the last one wasn't closed until 1996. Almost every aboriginal child you encounter has a parent or an uncle or aunt who survived the residential schools, and many of the challenges that face our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples can trace their origins to the damage done by this pernicious institution.

Audrey and I felt it was important for our family to get to the last national TRC event, held here in Edmonton last weekend, to educate ourselves and to show our support. We weren't necessarily comfortable with listening to the live testimonials with our daughters, given the fact that sometimes this could include frank descriptions of physical or sexual abuse, but we saw a number of exhibits and on Sunday night we took part in the 'Walk of Reconciliation' from the Shaw Conference Centre to the steps of the Legislature.

Saturday afternoon we attended the screening of a movie, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, a rough-edged but mesmerizing movie about a whip-smart 16 year old girl living on a reservation in Ontario in the 70's. Haunted by the spirits of her mother and brother, she uses the proceeds of her uncle's grow-op that she manages to stay out of the residential school he calls 'the mill', until the opportunity for revenge presents itself.

The room was packed, with perhaps slightly more indigenous than non-indigenous people in attendance. Young people moved to the floor so the elders could sit in chairs. We were warned that the movie was fairly violent in places, and that some of the scenes could trigger strong emotional responses in some of the audience, given its depiction of life in an Indian Residential School. While the facilitator was explaining this, boxes of tissues made their way up and down the rows of seats, with most people taking two or three just in case, but some people taking more.

Most interestingly to me though, they advised us not to throw away the tissues containing tears; it was explained that they would be collected in the brown paper bags being held by volunteers stationed around the room, and that they would be put into the sacred fire burning outside the conference centre as an offering at the end of the event.

I felt an irrational and profound sense of gratitude that these tears were not being wasted; that they were being preserved and committed to something symbolic, something worthwhile and important. The rightness of the action was never in question in my mind; although I had never given any thought to such a practice, there was an emotional logic and internal consistency to it that made me feel as though it was not only worthy and good, but that I had always known it, and just not had the opportunity to express it. A powerful symbol, brimming with significance, bordering on magic.

After a group of Dené drummers played a healing song, they dimmed the lights and the show began. True to the warning, it was a fairly intense film, with language feeling a bit stronger than what I expected from a film with a PG-14 rating. Still, I wouldn't have changed anything; I felt drawn into a world every bit as alien to me as what I have encountered in science-fiction, despite knowing it was all drawn from real or at least realistic experiences.

The most harrowing scene in the film comes towards the end, when our heroine's plans for revenge have taken a turn for the pear-shaped. Unable to pay her 'truancy tax', she is dragged into the school that has taken such a toll on her family, she is stripped of her clothes, and in a final humiliation, the nuns take a pair of shears and cut off her braids, a powerful symbol of wisdom and maturity in aboriginal culture.

As soon as you saw the heavy scissors sawing away at the braids of this helpless, angry girl, so capable up until that moment, you could hear and feel the effect on the audience.


A ragged, shuddering intake of breath.

A low moan.


A muffled sob.

And even without hearing this, you knew tears were being shed.

Tears of sorrow for all, but mixed with pain for the native people there, and with shame for the rest of us.

Knowing that these tears were being collected and given a purpose by our actions, that these tears and the emotions that provoked them were being honoured and given a significance and meaning, that we shouldn't hide them or be ashamed of them, that they were necessary and good and healthy, was more than symbolism; it was transfiguring. It radically changed the way I experienced the event and the feelings it provoked.

The movie had become too intense for Glory well before this scene, so Audrey had taken her out of the room. A native woman saw Audrey comforting her, and asked if she could talk to them.

This stranger had found the movie too much to handle as well, and had left shortly before they did. She told them that she was a survivor, and looked directly at Glory when she told her how proud she was that someone so young would come to the TRC in order to hear what she could and to show support.

And out of this random connection between strangers, still more tears were shed, between all three of them. And it was good.

These tears were combined with mine, and those of the people I heard in the room where the film was screened, with the people who told their stories, and the witnesses who came to hear them, and they were offered up to Creator in the sacred fire, in the spirit of healing and forgiveness.

And the logical, rational part of my mind, the one that wants to live in a world of rules and laws, of gravity and mathematics, that part knows that this offering is simply the transformation of water and salt into steam and ash; a chemical reaction older than mankind.

But if I'm honest with myself, I know, deep in my heart, that those tears and the feelings behind them, they went someplace.

And when I tell the story of that offering of tears to other people, and I can see the connection made in the glimmering of their eyes, how can I not believe in magic?

I'm not asking anyone to change their mind; I'm not yet fully convinced myself. I ask only that we at least attempt to keep our eyes, and our minds, and most importantly our hearts, open to the possibility that there is a place somewhere on the continuum between science and superstition, between symbol and skepticism, where magic could exist.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Never Out of Style - Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Reviewed

My commitment to spoiler-free reviews means I can't tell you a lot about the plot of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, although the trailers seem to have given away most of the shop anyways.

I can tell you that it holds up to the increasingly high standards of Marvel movies remarkably well.  Joe and Anthony Russo's first big-screen blockbuster has a gripping storyline that would not have been out of place in a lot of '70s political thrillers, and it is probably the best looking Marvel Studios release to date.

This is not an exaggeration.  The car scenes are the best I have seen in ten years, and compare favourably to Ronin, even though they tend to be less car chases and more car-fights.  The fight scenes are fast, sharp and best of all, crystal clear; no Bourne-style shaky cam here.  The Russos also do a great job of showing the difference between being hit by a soldier, by a martial arts/espionage specialist, or by a superhuman.  This movie also includes the maximum amount of shield slinging allowable by law, and it's not like I felt this element was overlooked in the first Captain America!

Familiar faces are here in the form of Chris Evans' Steve Rogers and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, as well as Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury.  New arrival Sam Wilson (Falcon), played with swaggerless confidence and tremendous charm by Anthony Mackie, is worthy addition to the MCU pantheon, but I hope they switch out his paramilitary duds for something more heroic in his next appearance, whether that is in Cap 3 or Avengers 2.  I doubt the actor will get the classic red spandex he is looking for, but hopefully a step or two can be taken in that direction.

Robert Redford brings his A-game as well, blending ruthlessness and charm as befits the government secretary overseeing an immensely powerful intelligence gathering and covert ops organization.  Apparently he made this film to impress his grandchildren, who are Marvel fans, and I hope they are proud of the great job he did, and the gravitas his veteran presence brings to what could feel like a silly undertaking in less-skilled hands.

Even before Joss Whedon came on as special advisor and spiritual advisor for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, producer Kevin Feige and his studio had already figured out that in order to be truly successful, superhero movies could not be a genre unto themselves, and they need to blend elements of action, story, character and humor with the precision and timing of a master chef.  How they can do this so consistently is completely beyond me, but The Winter Soldier does all this, and more.

Although it is a darker and somewhat more cynical film that what has come before, they waste very little time on the Rip Van Winkle aspect of the title character, and instead focus more on how the world has changed.  How do we regard freedom?  What are we prepared to do to protect it?  How much compromise is too much?  It is easy to ask these sorts of questions and then sidestep them instead of resolving them, but The Winter Soldier follows through in a surprisingly gutsy fashion, and shakes up some of the pillars of the MCU significantly.  (If you are currently watching Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, I strongly recommend seeing this movie before the next episode.)

And the fan service?  Astonishing.  There are the obligatory nods to the current movie continuity (like Black Widow's tiny arrow necklace, suggesting a connection to Hawkeye since the Battle of New York in The Avengers), but they also do a surprisingly good job updating a couple of vintage comics characters, Batroc the Leaper and Arnim Zola.  Hearing Stephen Strange get a name drop was wonderful, but for me, the golden moment came when one character whispers to another, "Hail Hydra," and all the hairs on my arm stood up.  I can't tell you how long I have been waiting to hear those words in the current continuity, and it looks like the wait has been worth it.  What SPECTRE is to Bond, Hydra is to Marvel, but far, far, worse.  There's a few more Easter eggs as well, but I will leave them for you to discover, and maybe we can revisit them in a few weeks.
"Hail Hydra! Immortal Hydra! Cut off one limb and two more shall take its place!"

The next Marvel movie is a sidestep to the cosmic with the Guardians of the Galaxy, which is likely to not deal with present day MCU Earth at all.  That won't return to the big-screen until next May with Avengers: Age of Ultron (by the way, I don't have to tell you to stay past the credits, do I?), capping off 'Phase Two' of Marvel Studios master plan, but in the meantime we can at least content ourselves with the ever-improving Agents of SHIELD (and maybe even Agent Peggy Carter  at some point!).

You don't need to be a comics fan to enjoy The Winter Soldier; it is a tightly written spy thriller with incredible action sequences.  But those of us familiar with the source material will be impressed by how many old threads they manage to weave into the new material, and how a timeless character like Captain America can take a complex, 21st century conflict and show us how in the end, even that fight can be good against evil.